I love horror games. Feeling the tingle down my spine as I catch a glimpse of a monster out of the corner of my eye, and the way the hairs on the back of my neck stand up straight as I hear distant footsteps gets me excited. Horror games are one of my favorite genres. They encapsulate our primal fears and exploit our weaknesses. I even stay up late at night playing horror games with my headphones on just to get the full experience. But what is it that separates bad horror games from good ones? I decided to mull it over, and after a little thinking, and returning to some horror games that I love, I’ve come up with a few good points.
Jump scares are great. They make us leap out of our seats and send us back under our bedsheets. All horror games incorporate them. But good horror games know not to overuse them. When a creature drops down in front of us, or grabs us from behind, we may scream aloud at first. But when it happens for the 20th time, it loses some of its zest.
Dead Space is one of those games that takes Jump scares too far. The first time a necromorph leaps up from the ground, it’s genuinely surprising. After a few times however, it becomes boring and even predictable. Seeing them lift off the ground in an “A-ha you thought we were dead” stance becomes mind numbingly dull.
By contrast, a great horror game like Amnesia uses jump scares as a tool, rather than an end result. As you explore, you look around and focus on something in the distance. Finally, you get close to inspect it, and when you turn around a creature is standing right in front of you. The lack of flare in the entrance is what sells the horror. You just turn around, and it’s there.
The fact is that jump scares don’t scare us, they startle us. They can be a great medium for horror, but they shouldn’t be the apex of a horror game.
Truly great horror games know that the scariest things are what we can’t fight against. This can be ghosts, monsters, or even personal demons (i.e Silent Hill). What creates the tension is the feeling of helplessness. This is lost when the player holds an assault rifle in their hands. In horror, the ability to fight back should be eliminated, or at least severely limited. The best way to ensure that the player feels vulnerable is to take away their ability to attack.
Again, this is something games like Dead Space and The Evil Within have failed to grasp. They take the road of action horror, instead of real horror. Toting around a plasma cutter, automatic rifle, and a Buzzsaw detract from the sense of fear that we are supposed to experience.
A game like Outlast knows that horror is truly generated when we know we can’t defend ourselves. In Outlast, you can either run or hide. There’s no pistol or weapons to speak of. It knows that horror comes from knowing we are at the mercy of what’s chasing us in the dark.
Seeing isn’t Believing
With horror games, less is more, especially when it comes to the monsters. The more we see the monsters, the less scary they become. This is true no matter what the monster is. Zombies can be terrifying. But once you’re running circles around hordes of them, the game starts to become dull.
If you put the player in a dark room, they will assume something is in the room with them. This is the glorious part of horror games. The real fear comes from our imaginations; from picturing what it could be that’s skulking around waiting around every corner.
When the monster finally jumps out to chase us around, it should be the finale. It should be the moment that all of the tension has lead up to. If it happens throughout the entire game, it feels more like a mechanic than actual horror. The monster will jump out. We run away. Rinse and repeat. It feels commonplace, and takes away from the primal fear we should be feeling.
“Subtlety” has been lost on a lot of triple A horror games today. It has been replaced by constant explosions and loud shouting, in place of real story and world building. Horror can’t be forced, it must be nuanced. Many horror games today try to do “action-horror.” The biggest downfall I have seen of this is the Dead Space trilogy. The first game was a little overdone, but had promise. The second game favored more action than horror, and by the third game, horror had been beaten senseless and thrown out the window.
True horror doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it too. It favors setting and world building over action and explosions. It creates tension, that all important idea that is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the minds of game developers.
Just as tension in films come from caring about the characters, tension in horror games come from projecting yourself into the character’s place. But when overused jump scares, a barrage of weapons, and monsters that chase you around roam too freely, the game loses its sense of real horror in place of gimmicks that only take the player away from a real sense of fear.